your brain is a liar (motivation part 2)

The story so far: sex is not a drive.

A drive is a motivational system designed to return an organism to a baseline state. Hunger motivates you to eat so you can be nourished. Thirst motivate you to drink so you can be hydrated. Thermoregulation motivates you to shiver and sweat, so you can avoid freezing or roasting.

With sex, there is no baseline state to which you have to return. Therefore there’s no such thing as a “sex drive.”

Why, then, can it FEEL like your desire for sex is a hunger, a thirst, a bodily craving as elemental as the drives?

The first thing I want to say is that the experience of spontaneous desire is not native to all people. As I’ve mentioned before, women’s sexuality in particular may be characterized by “responsive” rather than spontaneous desire. It’s normal and healthy, often, not to want sex until someone starts kissin’ on ya and then you’re like, “Oooh! Sex! Good idea!” Responsive desire.

If that’s you and it has been a worry for you, please go read the post I linked to in the above paragraph.

For those who do feel spontaneous desire, which springs apparently unbidden from your genitals, I have news for you, and it’s this:

Your brain is lying to you.

It’s a matter of thresholds, you see.

Remember that your sexual motivation system is made of two parts: the sexual excitation system (SES) and the sexual inhibition system (SIS) – also known as the gas and the brakes.

Your SES – everyone’s SES – is constantly scanning the environment in all sensory modalities (sight, sound, smell, touch, taste, in order of proximity), noticing sexually relevant stimuli, and cataloguing them, sending a perpetual stream of “turn on!” messages down your spine to your genitals.

At the same time, your SIS – everyone’s SIS – is constantly scanning the environment in all sensory modalities, noticing threats and sending a perpetual stream of “turn off!” messages down your spine to your genitals.

So when you experience RESPONSIVE desire, your body has been given a boatload of sexually relevant stimuli – in the form, at minimum, of an affectionate partner – which results in buckets of “turn on!” signals. Your desire has emerged NOT from a LACK of anything (as with hunger or thirst) but from the presence of appetitive stimuli – incentives!

Incentive. Motivation. System. Are ya with me?

(I hope this isn’t boring. I understand that it might be. Trust me: really deeply understanding this will change your life. Trudge on with me and you’ll get to the promised land.)

Now. When you experience spontaneous desire EXACTLY THE SAME THING HAS HAPPENED. Only you’re just floating around in the world and your (probably more sensitive) SES needs less stimulation to get you to that “Oooh! Sex! Good idea!” stage.

It is NOT because something is missing; it is because there is something (anything!) appetitive in the world and your body is attracted to appetitive things. Given adequate incentive, it will do nigh on anything to get to an appetitive stimulus. You are not PUSHED by an internal problem, you’re PULLED by an external treat.

Right, okay.

An important question that a lot of people ask – well, a lot of MEN ask, if I’m honest – is this:

If sexual desire comes not because something is missing, why does it hurt sometimes, Emily? Why does it feel like there’s something broken inside me that won’t be right until I’ve got my body naked against someone else’s? Why can I think of nothing else, as a starving man thinks of food, as a dying man thinks of peace? Not having sex is DAMAGING ME, they tell me, it’s not a treat, it’s a NEED!!

The actual answer is cold and heartless, for which I apologize. I’ve heard the ache in men’s voices, seen the pain of multiple rejections, the loss, the grief. It’s a big deal. I am not minimizing that.

But the answer is, it’s a threshold thing.

You’re perpetually confronted with sexually relevant stimuli – attractive people in the world, media representations of sex, an endless stream of images and ideas – and these not only send SES signals, but as your SES gets stimulated and you begin to think about sex, the thoughts themselves become stimulators of your SES. Your desire increases, which makes your thoughts about sex increase, which further increases your desire.

If you’re a person who experiences NEED for sex, you’ve got a lower threshold than people who don’t. You get caught in this loop more readily.

It looks like it might even be true that SES gets increasingly sensitive the longer it’s been since the last ejaculation (in men – it’s not clear what the trigger might be, if any, in women; have I mentioned lately that it’s different for girls?), and it’s easy to think, “Well that’s your return to baseline surely!!” But it’s not. I’ll talk about that more in the next episode. The short version: arousal is never aversive.

There’s more to it than this, of course, lots more. We aren’t done by half.

Stay tuned for the next exciting adventure…. same bat time, same bat station.